City City Bang Bang, Columns

The power of the government Job

The numbers are staggering. 23 lakh applicants for 368 peon’s jobs in UP, 25 lakh vying for 6000 Group D jobs in Bengal, 25 million applications for 90,000 jobs in the Railways, 2 lakh for 1137 vacancies for the post of police constables in Maharashtra. At one level, these numbers from the last few years highlight the scarcity of jobs in many parts of India, but at another, they speak to the continued power of the government job. In a growing economy, one would imagine that the choices of careers would be widening. We certainly see this happening in the larger cities where private sector jobs are usually preferred to government jobs, because of money, growth prospects and work culture.

But step outside into the larger India, as one had occasion to do recently as part of an on-going project to make sense of what is changing in small town India, and the picture changes completely. The private sector is viewed largely with suspicion, and more than a little disdain. The private job is seen to be work at its most sweaty and unrewarding. One is answerable to the owner, there is no permanence, and the hours are long and hard. The exception is an IIT degree, which is seen as a passport to all kinds of opportunities; but even for many IIT aspirants, the eventual destination is a government job.

The reasons for the preference for a government job are easy to understand. The fact that a government job is permanent is a huge factor. It speaks volumes for the economy when stability is valued over everything else. The government job ‘settles’ one’s life into a template of ever-after; anxiety about the future is substantially managed. And then there is the prospect of what is called ‘upar ki kamai’- the ability to make money on the side. This is acknowledged in a matter-of-fact way without a trace of guilt as if it were a legitimate perk that came along with the job. The government job is also seen to be much less taxing in terms of the effort than needs to be put in; the ‘no tension’ nature of employment is often spoken of.

But the real attraction of the government job is the power that is seen to come with it. In large parts of India, power is a stronger currency than money, for it is convertible into every other currency of note. The government job gives one a place in the ‘official’ social map of a region. One is somebody as per one’s caste and then on basis of one’s official designation. Without such a fixed position, one floats without harness; one cannot do anything meaningful for others while anything can potentially be done to you. The intractability of the administrative system becomes the reason for its continued power- to crack it, one must be inside it. In small town India, official power is a palpable presence; cars zoom around with designations on the number plate, names of municipal officers are common knowledge, transfers of key officers become headline news.

Which is why a government position, however menial, is often preferred to an objectively more attractive private sector or entrepreneurial option. We can see the evidence of this in the kind of people who apply for government jobs- CAs, MBAs, even doctorates can be found applying for jobs of peons and clerks- positions they would not dream of taking in the private sector. In the marriage market, which is the real test of what is socially valued, a person with a government job commands better terms.
Getting into the government is a mammoth project by itself. Studying for a government job is thought of as much more of a job than actually working for the government. Taking up to 3-4 years preparing for a job is considered quite normal. In a state like Bihar, for instance where towns are plastered with signs of people studying for these jobs, one comes across students slogging it out in special study groups, living away from home in terrible conditions, spending money that they can ill-afford, all to crack some government job. Being unemployed while preparing for a government job looks nothing like unemployment. There is a sense of purpose, great social support, an extremely busy day and a thriving ecosystem that enables learning.

This results in a vast number of young people finding themselves trapped in a bubble of competitive exams, responding to a constructed reality of exams and interviews that bears little resemblance to real life. Subjects have to be mugged, arcane skills developed, purely for the purpose of landing the job. The learning here leaves little by way of residual knowledge; all of it gets consumed in the act of finding a job.

The intense demand for these jobs should mean that the government should get the best talent that is available. In the functioning of the government in most parts of the country, however, it is not immediately apparent that this is so. For most aspirants, the hard work stops at the doorstep of the job. What is being vied for is not work, but power. The government is dotted with extremely bright and committed people, but this is not a predictable pattern, but simply a function of some individuals.

The attractiveness of the government job, can in theory, be very good news. It would indicate that that India of full of public-service minded people who want to work to improve things on the ground. Sadly, the popularity of the government job is a sign, despite all the progress the country has made, of how static the inter-locked social and economic systems have remained, and how administration gets decoded not as service, but as power. The preference for a government jobs in the current form is a vote for the past rather than the future.

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